Falcons active on market, bolster talent in trenches
The Atlanta Falcons ranked among the league’s most active teams on the first day of NFL free agency, moving to revamp their glaring weaknesses on the offensive and defensive lines by signing former Miami defensive tackle Paul Soliai and two former Kansas City Chiefs, offensive guard Jon Asamoah and defensive end Tyson Jackson – perhaps underscoring the influence of new assistant general manager Scott Pioli, the former Chiefs general manager.
According to FOX’s Mike Garafolo, the Falcons gave Soliai a five-year, $33-million with $14 million guaranteed and $11 million this year. Asamoah’s contract was reportedly worth $4.5 million per season.
The Falcons also retained two of their own players, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who received a three-year, $9-million deal, and center Joe Hawley, who received a two-year deal.
"We were focused on adding pieces along our offensive and defensive lines and I feel we were able to accomplish that today," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said in a statement. "We believe that Paul and Tyson will add stoutness and grittiness to our defensive front and will help in the run game. Jon is a solid offensive lineman that has started 41 games during his four-year career that will bring some ruggedness to our offensive front."
Soliai, listed at 6-foot-4, 345 pounds, is entering his eighth year. In Atlanta he will be reunited with his former defensive coordinator in Miami, Mike Nolan. With Nolan running the defense, the Dolphins finished top-10 in the league one year. New Falcons defensive line coach Bryan Cox also was on the Dolphins’ defensive staff in 2011 as their pass rush coach and would have worked with Soliai to some degree.
In 2011 under Nolan, Soliai earned his first career Pro Bowl selection. The Dolphins’ defense ranked third in the NFL against the run that season, allowing 95.6 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry.
"Paul has played for Coach Nolan in Miami and is familiar with our scheme and Tyson is a good football player that will fit with what we want to do defensively as well," head coach Mike Smith said in a statement.
While left tackle Sam Baker has played well when healthy, which in itself has proved an issue, Dimitroff’s other acquisitions along the offensive line have struggled. Pioli and his expertise appear to have made a significant contribution on Tuesday.
Pioli drafted Asamoah, 25, in the third round in 2010 during his Kansas City days. He drafted Jackson in his first season in Kansas City, 2009, with the third overall pick in the draft that year.
Jackson, 27, is 6-foot-4, 296 pounds and had four sacks last season and has nine for his career. The moves appear to all but cement the idea that the Falcons will move to a 3-4 base, although they could still play 4-3 in some situations. Potentially gone are the 250- and 260-pound three-down ends like John Abraham. In such a scenario Kroy Biermann could move permanently to outside linebacker — the Falcons promoted former defensive assistant Mark Collins to outside linebackers coach on Monday, a position they formerly did not have and that is generally associated with teams that play the 3-4 — as could Osi Umenyiora, who might become more of a "designated pass rusher," a role that the Falcons created for him late in their 4-12 2013 season.
With the signing of Asamoah, who is only 25, the Falcons helped to upgrade a line that was responsible for the NFL’s worst running game last season. In four seasons with Kansas City, Asamoah, 6-foot-4, 305, appeared in 60 games with 41 starts at right guard. Asamoah played 13 games last season as the Chiefs averaged 128.5 yards rushing yards (10th in the NFL last season).
In terms of their own players, Falcons prevented their top free agent from hitting the open market by about two and a half hours, re-signing defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux to a three-year contract.
Babineaux, will enter his 10th season with the Falcons this year. On one of the NFL’s worst defenses last season, he represented one of the bright spots, as he recorded 49 tackles (37 solo) with one sack, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Standing 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, Babineaux gives them flexibility in that he can play the 3-4 end or the 4-3 tackle.
The Falcons have stated that their top priority in the offseason is to improve along both the offensive and defensive lines. Regarless of Tuesday’s moves in free agency, losing Babineaux would have weakened them in that effort.
Babineaux might be turning 33 in October but he is not showing signs of slowing down. He has played in every game in each of the past two seasons. For his career, he has 23.5 sacks, three interceptions, 20 passes defensed, 10 fumble recoveries and nine forced fumbles.
It’s also possible the Falcons learned from their decision last season to cut Abraham, owing to his age, only to have Abraham make the Pro Bowl with Arizona at age 35. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported the deal was worth $9 million, with $4 million guaranteed in 2014.
The Falcons also re-signed Hawley to a two-year deal, presumably to be their starter. Hawley started seven games last season after Peter Konz, a second-round pick in 2012, lost the job.
Overall, Hawley, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, has started 19 games in his career. Smith praised the job that he did in the latter part of the season.
In 2011, Hawley made some starts at center when long-time center Todd McClure began the season with a knee injury. However, he got the bulk of his starts that season at right guard, replacing Garrett Reynolds, a player the Falcons recently cut.
The Falcons also cut former Pro Bowl safety Thomas DeCoud, saving themselves $3 million in cap room. DeCoud is the third former defensive starter the Falcons cut this offseason, along with Asante Samuel and Stephen Nicholas, though Nicholas mostly played a reserve role last season.